On the “tragedy of the commons” (that is, the tragedy of commons without communities)

tragedy-of-the-commons.jpgThe recent version of the “tragedy of the commons” argument was put forward by Garret Hardin in 1968 in the journal Science. The core of the argument, is that commons are incentive and distribution arrangements that inevitably result in environmental degradation and generally resource depletion. This because the commons are understood as resources for which there is “free” and “unmanaged” access. In this framework, no one has an obligation to take care of commons. In societies in which commons are prevalent, Hardin argues, people live by the principle: ‘to each according to his needs’ formulated by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha program. By assuming that commons are a free for all space from which competing and atomized “economic men” take as much as they can, Hardin has engineered a justification for privatization of the commons space rooted in an alleged natural necessity. Hardin forgets that there is no common without community within which the modalities of access to common resources are negotiated. Incidentally, this implies that there is no enclosure of commons without at the same time the destruction and fragmentation of communities. However, the “tragedy of the commons” argument is not simply “wrong”. Its problem concerns the fact that its players are casted in a rationality and measuring process that is uniquely the type of subject portrayed by capital: economic man. We can uncover the “apologetics” and “vulgarity” of this argument, only by reclaiming different types of measures for ourselves.

Here are some examples of “sustainable” traditional commons, in which community decisions set the boundary of what is “sustainable”. they are taken from Thomas Princen book, The logic of sufficency MIT press. Note from these quotes how risks are shaped by communities who define a sufficient limit to production in order to guarantee the reproduction of the system as a whole. (Unlike the capitalist system which depends on unlimited production for its preservation)

The first case is Swiss farmers

(23) Every spring, as the snow melt and the edelweiss blooms, Smiss farmers coax their dairy cows out of the valleys and up into Alpine meadows to graze. In each village, the farmers decide collectively how many cows each farmer can send to the mountain commons. That decision is based on the number of cows the farmer can overwinter, which is, in turn, based on the farmer’s valley pasturage and barn space. Overwintering capacity has little connection, if any, to the meadow’s grazing capacity but somehow the system works. And it has worked year after year, with no evidence of overgrazing, for at least 500 years. A reasonable candidate, I would say, for sustainable practice.

Another example is from fishing communities in North Norway:

(23) In the Lofoten Islands in the far north of Norway, a portion of the cod fishery is set aside for sail-powererd boats. Factory trawler ships are prohibited antirely. these Norwegians know perfectly well that modern techniques would bring them greater yealds. But they’re not sure modern techniques will ensure them fish for their lifetime and that of their children and grandchildren. Despite repeated attempts by the government to emphasize revenues, the fishermen’s primary goal is not maximum yeld or profit; it’s a secure fishery. The result is a relatively ‘inefficient’ management regime, but one with a track record: 100 years of succesful management . . .and some 500 years of cod export to the Mediterrenean. Similar stories can be told for long-standing small-scale, inshore fisheries around the world. Again, reasonable candidates for sustainable practice.

Finally, from the Marajo Island

On Marajo Island, a large chinck of land in the mouth of the Amazon River, ranchers graze beef cattle on native grasses, getting respectable but not great yealds of meat. Nearby, on the mainland, ranchers use modern methods of feeding to produce superior quantities of beef. The land and water in the mainland ranches are degrading, though, making uncertain whether their practices can continue. Meanwhile, the Marajo ranchers are expected to continue their relatively low-yield practices for a long time to come. After all, they’ve been doing it for some 400 years. Sustainable practices again, it would seem.

Comments are closed.